From the October 2004 Issue of Car and Driver
Look, Ma, no BMWs! — Is this any way to run a sports-sedan test?
Welcome to our October reality show. The reality is BMWs are expensive. Add the higher cost of fuel this year, and perhaps a little extra caution based on what might happen in the Middle East, and maybe this is not the right time to commit to BMW-size payments.
Yes, we know, the 3-series is the very definition of a sports sedan. But $30,000 won’t buy you a decently equipped BMW today, not from a new-car dealer. So if you want four doors and fling-around spiritedness for less, you have to check out other labels.
No problem. And no waiting. We’ve—heh-heh—already done the roadwork.
Starting at the top of the alphabet, Acura turned loose the just-right-size TSX in time for 2004 models, with a six-speed and a wicked VTEC 2.4-liter four. It’s a bit more car than the 3-series, about seven inches longer overall with a genuinely useful back seat for adults, yet EPA mileage is 29 mpg on the highway. In real life, this is the European Honda Accord, a sedan of leaner dimensions than the U.S. model. Since our first TSX drive, we’ve been itching to toss this sweetheart into a comparison.
Next on the A-list is Audi, specifically, the A4. If you go with the standard turbocharged 1781cc four, just say no to all-wheel drive, and resign yourself to life without the six-speed gearbox, you ought to be able to find one of these compact four-doors at a gnat’s whisker under our price ceiling. The EPA gives this one credit for 31 mpg on the highway.
The A4 is a senior citizen of the junior-size imported sports sedans, already three years past a makeover. But Cary Grant never got old, just more distinguished, and that’s the story here, too. There’s a classic sort of muscularity about the tautly drawn sheetmetal, and impeccable good taste in the interior appointments. Cars depreciate, but this one, we’ll venture, will hold onto its looks longer than the managing editor.
Two fresh imports also qualify for the class. Subaru just unveiled a new-generation Legacy. The maker has discovered, from the runaway-favorite reception accorded to the outrageously turbocharged Impreza WRX, that big horsepower wins friends and influences buyers. So, if a little is good—227 in the case of the base WRX—then more would be better. Introducing the 250-hp Legacy 2.5GT.
All-wheel drive is standard equipment, of course. And this new version has its horizontally opposed four snuggled lower in the chassis to drop the center of gravity a fraction. Forget those four-wheelin’ ventures that come to mind with the high-riding Subies of yore. This one is made for fast forward on pavement.
Last on the alphabetical list, so “almost here” in the U.S. that our T5-level test car had to be a European-model stand-in just to make the deadline, is the Volvo S40. T5 means full-on sport in Volvo parlance. In the S40, it packs a 218-hp turbocharged five-cylinder engine of 2.5 liters, teamed with a six-speed manual gearbox. The EPA says 31 mpg highway for this one, too.
The S40 is a full-FoMoCo-influenced small car based on a platform used by the nifty Mazda 3 and the next-generation Ford Focus. Yet it wears the Volvo family face, having the same sheetmetal creases and furrows as the patriarch, the big S80 sedan.
In deference to the price ceiling, this S40 is a front-driver; AWD would be $1650 more.
While rounding up players, we kicked the tires of Mercedes-Benz’s C230 Kompressor, but the budget said no.
We’re left with a quartet of quick-reflex four-doors that score high on the fun-per-gallon curve. Are you ready for fun without guilt?
Fourth Place: Audi A4 1.8T
Okay, you can find an A4 for less than $30,000, but we didn’t. This one listed for $31,220. But we could get our hands on this one in time for deadlines, which, at times, speaks louder than the budget. It had an extra $2950 rung up for the Ultra Sport package—How could we say no to that?—which includes 18-inch alloy wheels with “summer” 235/40 Z-rated tires, the sport suspension, a smart-looking aerodynamic package, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
It also had a $2000 Premium package with leather on the seats, a glass sunroof, a power driver’s seat, and a driver information display. We could lose that package and still be happy.
HIGHS: Still a great looker, handsome interior, too, with an unflappable stride over the road.
LOWS: Noisy and feeble engine, gritty shifter action, slow-tempo shifts dictate lazy decay of engine revs.
So it’s possible to find an A4 that squeaks under the line. But you’ll notice the fourth-place finish, 15 points (of a possible 235) behind third. We still love the A4’s handsome face. Age, though, can’t be denied. This Audi is packing old engineering. The younger cars have better moves and better manners.
The A4’s VW four-cylinder is rough. It growls and grumbles all the time, even at 70 mph on the highway. Shifting has always been one of the A4’s joys, but this is a tough league, and the others now set the standard. The Audi’s lever has a gritty feel as it moves over its rather longish, by today’s reckoning, travel. And the shifting action is slow because engine revs are lazy about dropping when you ease off the gas. It doesn’t take much to spoil the magic.
With only 170 horsepower—the others are all rated at 200 or more—acceleration is a weak point. Zero-to-60 takes 8.1 seconds, 0.6 behind the third-quickest Acura. With only 1781cc, having the boost up is essential to making torque. Below 1200 rpm, nobody’s home. Competing in traffic means keeping the revs up and working the lever. Fine. But those are not pleasing attributes of this car. The result is a fun-to-drive rating clearly behind the others.
Fuel economy is the consolation prize, with a second-best 30 mpg in our impromptu metro loop. It was a summer Friday in Ann Arbor, traffic was light, and we drove as if we were paying for the gas. So the Audi beat its EPA city rating of 22. Over our whole 800-mile test run, the Audi and the Acura tied at 25 mpg.
The sport suspenders reminded us of their presence over every bump. The 40-series tires don’t forgive much, either—they report with a loud kawop! over interstate expansion strips.
Road grip topped the chart at 0.85 g on the skidpad in a tie with the Volvo (the other car with summer tires). The tires have a trusty stiffness when you lean on them in the curves. They turn in precisely and on cue. They want to work with you even as they’re beating you up over the bumps.
The A4 earned its best marks from us in the category of cockpit ergonomics, where it tied with the Acura. This car has always been a great fit for the driver. Not so the space for rear-seat occupants, however. The seat is narrow back there, with deep contours in the backrest for lateral restraint. In the inadvisable case of three across, the center guy had better be short and very narrow.
THE VERDICT: A longtime favorite struggles to make the cut.
We started this epic with the acceptance of a reality—you can’t buy a fun BMW for 30 large anymore. Now this news: The same applies to Audi.
2004 Audi A4 1.8T
170-hp inline-4, 5-speed manual, 3420 lb
Base/as-tested price: $26,270/$31,220
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.1 sec
100 mph: 23.7 sec
1/4 mile: 16.2 @ 87 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 180 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 25 mpg
Third Place: Subaru Legacy 2.5GT Limited
Eyes are still wide in the enthusiast community following the news that we can order 250 horsepower in a Legacy, the big Subie, the adult four-door. That inks this roomy sedan on more gotta-have-it lists.
The power awaiting your toe is indeed fun. The turbo spools up right now. First gear is short and quick. Traction from all-wheel drive is nearly infinite. This weenie-looking box will scratch across the intersection ahead of all the overdogs, not that we’re inclined to such contests. Still, there are times when another lane needs to be yours, and this is a four-door that will pounce on it. There is no external indication to awaken defenders, either, unless they happen to know that the 2.5GT logos attend the optional engine.
HIGHS: Three bags full of squirt, super-readable instrument display, low cowl lets the sunshine in.
LOWS: Rather heavy clutch, junky sound when the doors close, lots of obvious plastic around the interior.
Subaru engineers elicit the go power by the simple expedient of turbocharging the obedient little 2.5-liter until its eyes bulge, to 13.5 psi of boost. Not surprisingly, the driver feels that “nothing, nothing, then hang on” response common with turbo engines, but the switchover point comes at very low revs. Rounding metro corners at 800 rpm (as a gas-saving measure) is iffy—about half the time the engine goes into a terminal bucking mode; you must clutch it to recuperate. But ascend 500 more rpm, and you have surplus torque; time to shift if you care about fuel cost.
The Legacy earned most of the top marks in our acceleration tests, first to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, a full second ahead of the Volvo; first to 100 mph in 16.0 seconds; and first through the quarter-mile at 14.2 seconds, although the Volvo had a slim speed advantage at that point, 97 mph versus 96.
As the EPA mileage ratings predicted (19 city, 25 highway), the Subaru was the least frugal in our consumption tests. It managed 22 mpg over our entire 800-mile run, and 27 on our metro loop. Hardly a gas hog, given the strong acceleration.
Roadholding, held back slightly by M+S tires, was 0.81 g, weakest of the group by a slim margin. We think that’s a small price to pay for year-round rubber. The 215/45 Bridgestone Potenzas are soft in their responses but happily predictable. The suspension rolls more than you’d expect of a performance car, and the shocks let it move. Apart from the forceful engine, there’s not much sense of athletic discipline here. “GT” is a badge, not an attitude.
The availability of big horsepower hasn’t changed the new Legacy into something unexpected. It’s very much a Subaru, confirmed on your first drive by the clattery slam of the door, just like every Subie we can remember. The doors have frameless glass, like the hardtops of old. It’s difficult to control the glass when it’s mostly extended up from its guides.
Inside, the beltline and the dash are low. Lots of sun comes in the large windows. The shifter is accurate but uninspired. The engine, never mind its inherent balance, makes noticeable shakes and Subaru thrumming noises.
Still, things do advance. The new Legacy dash cluster is simply a dark glass space when power is off. The gauge display is a fully electroluminescent LED, the same wondrous technology first seen on the Lexus LS of 15 years ago. It’s sharp and perfectly legible, and it wisely spares us the agony of designers trying too hard—they quit while they still had the look of dials. Real car flavor, in other words.
THE VERDICT: A getaway Subie for bank jobs.
With major horsepower to go and dials to watch, who needs more?
2004 Subaru Legacy 2.5GT Limited
250-hp flat-4, 5-speed manual, 3402 lb
Base/as-tested price: $26,570/$29,070
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.7 sec
100 mph: 16.0 sec
1/4 mile: 14.2 @ 96 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 196 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg
Second Place: Volvo S40 T5
Like the Legacy 2.5GT, this is a highly turbocharged car with a lot of power under your foot—more, in fact, than it would seem at first. Volvo claims max torque at only 1500 rpm, a healthy 236 pound-feet. Sounds like a stump-pulling truck motor. But the turbo gives a different personality. You have to wait an eye blink for your thrust to build. Point and—one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two—shoot!
HIGHS: Plenty of horsepressure when the boost finally hits, refined cabin noises, lots of styling subtlety in the dash.
LOWS: Big Foot needs more space around the pedals, gauge markings are too grayed-out for legibility, grabby clutch.
Hey, when the shot breaks, this Volvo gathers itself and heads for the horizon. Your best indication of that, looking at the test numbers, is the exceptionally high quarter-mile speed, 97 mph in 15.0 seconds. Once you get into an upper gear and can hold down the pedal for a while to maintain boost, speed comes quickly, more so than in the others. The S40 was quickest to 120 mph, also quickest in the rolling 5-to-60 acceleration and the 30-to-50. Turbos aren’t awake yet when you give that initial dip of the pedal. It’s their nature. Love it, or choose something else.
The big torque of this five is a lot to put through front drive: torque steer, you remember. This new S40 zigs some when the hammer goes down in first gear, but it’s surprisingly not bad. Launching from rest in normal driving, however, is tricky. Of the four cars, our drivers repeatedly stalled only one—this one.
If a new car must look like every Volvo has been trying to look since the S80 was hatched, we think this one does it really well. The dash draws raves for it style, particularly the smooth-metal center stack that rises from the console to house the HVAC and entertainment controls. Once your eyes are behind sunglasses, though, legibility suffers. The main dials have thin-stroke numbers in gray on black. Not enough contrast to do the job.
For road grip, the Volvo ties with the Audi for top ranking. Both cars, on summer tires, circled the skidpad at 0.85 g. For stopping distance, the Volvo easily bested the others at 166 feet from 70 mph.
All of our testers commented on this car’s sense of refinement. Ride is almost silky on smooth surfaces, and noises are largely muted. At highway speeds you hear wind rush, the blower, and some mysterious electronic hums, punctuated by the occasional tire smack on expansion strips. The five-cylinder thrum, apparent at lower speeds, fades to background. The steering isn’t at all sharp at speed, but we noticed that crosswinds didn’t deflect the path.
The cockpit fits comfortably, if your feet are average or smaller. Big Reeboks get hung up on the sides of the depression in the floor for pedal travel. Those long of arm will appreciate the column’s extra-long telescoping adjustment.
Rear passengers find themselves nestling into a high bench shaped for good thigh support, a clever accomplishment for such a short cushion. Footroom under the front seats is excellent, with a soft roll of padding where your instep contacts the back of the seats. The Volvo was the only one of the group without a leather interior, upholstered instead in a stylish combination of low-luster fabric and something that looks like Transylvanian bat hide. Leather always lacks the comfy, enveloping feel that this cloth combo gives.
THE VERDICT: Your basic 85-percent-scale Volvo.
Although the S40 T5 has ample horsepressure, the personality is more country club than workout gym.
2004 Volvo S40 T5
218-hp inline-5, 6-speed manual, 3297 lb
Base/as-tested price: $26,475/$29,395
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.7 sec
100 mph: 16.6 sec
1/4 mile: 15.0 @ 97 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 166 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 27 mpg
First Place: Acura TSX
If this were a puppy, it would be wagging its tail from the shoulders on back, so happy, so eager to play. This one topped our fun-to-drive rating and the gotta-have-it factor. No doubts, no reservations. This is a keeper.
As sports sedans go, let’s put the TSX into the gifted-amateur class. It’s a four-door that’s very good at being an everyday car. Manners are flawless. It just insists on having fun at the same time. So it comes with the best back-seat accommodations of the four, the ride quality is smoothest, the noises are most disciplined, and the fits and finishes seem exactly like we’d do if we were making cars.
HIGHS: The quick reflexes of a knife fighter, the big and rev-happy VTEC four, the perfect six-speed shifter.
LOWS: The M+S tires are disadvantagous for performance comparisons, seat cushion a bit shy of padding, throttle too goosey in traffic.
On top of that, this Acura knows how to cavort. And it has the right equipment. No turbos here. This one’s all natural, a 2.4-liter four removed from the Accord and sent off to voice lessons till it learned to sing out 200 horsepower at a sweet 6800 rpm, up 40 horsepower from the Accord’s 160. The redline is an effortless 7100 rpm. The engine earns speed the old-fashioned way, by swinging the tach needle up where the urgency lives. The transmission is a slick six-speeder with a buttery snick through the pattern. The pedals stroke easily, and the steering responds sharply.
This is driving the way you’ve always imagined it could be.
And when the joys are rushing in through your hands and feet, it doesn’t matter that the test times are below the group’s averages. Maybe that’s a bonus—you get to hold the pedal down longer and listen to more motor music. Zero-to-60 rolls up in 7.5 seconds, the quarter-mile at 15.7 seconds at a speed of 90 mph. Wide-open chases up through the gears take you over 90 mph at 6000 rpm in fourth, sort of the upper limit of polite motoring. So fifth and sixth serve as overdrives.
Handing responses are somewhat softer than in the others, primarily because the all-season Michelin Pilot HXs are chosen for ride smoothness and silence more than for athletic feats. On those passenger-comfort issues, the TSX excels. Skidpad grip measured 0.83 g with a reliable amount of understeer. On the road, you have the feeling of fleet-footed agility; the Acura is quick to change directions and has effortless control at any speed.
In our 800 miles of evaluation, overall fuel economy was 25 mpg, tied with the Audi and 2 mpg behind the most-frugal Volvo. In our metro loop, the Acura’s 31 mpg was the top mark. We were reminded, during this jaunt, of this high-revving four’s outstanding flexibility. It lugs down well below 800 rpm in sixth gear without complaint and accelerates happily at the touch of your toe. For smooth starts from zero, however, we’d appreciate a less aggressive throttle linkage. It’s too zingy now, and unnecessarily hard on the clutch.
The steering has a similar light-to-the-touch quickness, making the TSX feel alive and agile for urban maneuvers. At higher speeds, when straight down the road is the goal, the mood turns a little nervous; the path weaves in response to unseen forces.
THE VERDICT: Another jewel from Acura’s box.
The TSX has a zesty eagerness about it, like the high-winding Acura Integra Type R of the later ’90s. We can’t stop grinning when we’re in the cockpit. But there’s much more here—this car tied with or topped all the others in 17 of the 22 rating categories. Call it accomplished, call it irresistible, call it the class of the less-than-30-large field.
2004 Acura TSX
200-hp inline-4, 6-speed manual, 3246 lb
Base/as-tested price: $27,035/$29,035
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.5 sec
100 mph: 19.9 sec
1/4 mile: 15.7 @ 90 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 194 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.83 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 25 mpg
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